Cargo volume for 2017 is expected to come to 20m TEU, topping last year’s previous record of 18.8m TEU by 6.3%

Cargo volume for 2017 is expected to come to 20m TEU, topping last year’s previous record of 18.8m TEU by 6.3%

After months of record-setting volume as retailers stocked up for a busy holiday season, imports at major US retail container ports should be essentially flat this month compared with the same time last year as warehouses are full in anticipation of the key holiday trading season.

According to the latest Global Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation (NF) and Hackett Associates, cargo volume for the first half of 2017 totalled 9.7m Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), up 7.5% from the same period in 2016. The total for 2017 is expected to come to 20m TEU, topping last year's previous record of 18.8m TEU by 6.3%. That compares with 2016's 3.1% increase over 2015.

"The stores and warehouses are full, and it's time for the shopping to begin," says Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy. "Retailers have been bringing in merchandise since late summer, and supply is ready to meet the increased demand that has been building throughout the year."

He adds: "At this time of year, it's important to remember the role imports play in making the holidays affordable for American families and the millions of US jobs behind every product on the shelf regardless of where it is made," Gold said. "Our nation needs to avoid trade wars and other misguided trade policy that would drive up consumer prices or cost American workers their jobs."

Cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales because only the number of containers is counted, not the value of the cargo inside, but nonetheless provides a barometer of retailers' expectations.

Ports covered by Global Port Tracker handled 1.76m TEU in September, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was a 2.3% decrease from the record-setting 1.8m TEU recorded in August, but still a 10.5% increase year-over-year. A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.

October was estimated at 1.75m TEU, up 4.9% from last year. While not records, the September and October numbers were among only six times monthly volume has hit 1.7m TEU or higher since NRF began tracking imports in 2000.

Meanwhile, November is forecast at 1.63m TEU, down 0.5% from last year, and December is forecast at 1.6m TEU, up 2%.

Looking to the New Year, January 2018 is forecast at 1.66m TEU, down 1% from January 2017, February at 1.59m TEU, up 10.9% from last year, and March at 1.5m TEU, down 2.1%. The February and March percentages are skewed because of changes in when Asian factories close for Lunar New Year each year.

The import numbers come as NRF is forecasting that 2017 retail sales will grow between 3.2% and 3.8% over 2016 and that this year's holiday sales will be up by between 3.6% and 4%.

Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett says 2017 has turned out to be a "boom year" for growth in import cargo volume, reflecting the strong growth in spending by US consumers.

However, after a record-setting year, he warns the rate of import growth is expected to slow in 2018. "We see no decline in volume and no recession – just time out for a breather."